Pat Leahy: Sinn Féin is following Dev’s old playbook – to a point

Pre-1932 FF campaigned on economic populism, social reform and Irish unity. Sound familiar?

Éamon de Valera:  will Sinn Féin follow him in his patience and realism – hypocrisy, if you like – on the North? Photograph: Getty Images

Éamon de Valera: will Sinn Féin follow him in his patience and realism – hypocrisy, if you like – on the North? Photograph: Getty Images

 

Just as it is an unshakeable article of faith amongst many in the political class that Sinn Féin will lead the next government, so the conventional wisdom lays out a predictable playbook for the party’s ascent to and subsequent exercise of power.

I have lost count of the number of people who have explained to me that Sinn Féin is following the example of Fianna Fáil in the 1920s and 1930s. Eschewing the militarism of anti-Treaty Sinn Féin, that party converted its military discipline to electoral vigour, ousted the establishment and ruled for decades. You can see why the example appeals to Sinn Féin – even if the place in which this narrative is most fervently believed is within the ranks of Fianna Fáil.

Three years before a general election is rather early to be making cast-iron predictions about its outcome, especially given the strength of two of the principal dynamics of modern politics – volatility and greatly diminished voter loyalty. Even as the largest party Sinn Féin will have to find a route to a Dáil majority with the help of reliable coalition partners. And though you would never think it the current coalition parties are still holding on to, in mid-term, remember, the support of about half of voters. A Sinn Féin government may be the most likely outcome, but it is by no means a done deal.

And yet the parallels with the rise of Fianna Fáil in the 1920s and 1930s are vivid. These were discussed in an informative seminar organised by the National University of Ireland this week, the last in a series of reflections on the life and career of Eamon de Valera.

It wasn’t just for history buffs, but for students of contemporary politics too, and the sessions are available on the NUI website. Relevant disclosure: I was a member of Thursday’s panel, along with academics Jennifer Redmond, Gary Murphy and Lindsay Earner-Byrne, all chaired by the NUI chancellor (and therefore successor of Dev) Maurice Manning.

Political objectives

The trajectory of Fianna Fáil in the second half of the 1920s is strikingly similar to Sinn Féin since the late 1990s, in this jurisdiction at least. Concluding that the armed struggle could never be successful in delivering its political objectives, it sought to turn military defeat into political victory. In the period between the party’s foundation in 1926 and winning power in 1932, it mounted aggressive opposition based on economic populism, promises of social reform and rhetoric about reuniting Ireland.

Sound familiar?

Dig a little deeper into the political tactics and messages used by de Valera and Co and the similarities only become plainer. One of Fianna Fáil’s favourite charges was about the high salaries paid to politicians and officials, which it promised to slash once in government (the actual cuts were much smaller, and only lasted a year); it frequently complained of the cost of government, painting a picture of idle, over-staffed government offices – “secretaries to secretaries to secretaries” all being overpaid while the ordinary people suffered.

What about after the next election? Will the party continue to look to Dev for inspiration?

Nobody was worth more than £1,000 a year, the party thundered, at a time when the President of the Executive Council (as the head of government then was) was paid £2,500 a year. The modern equivalent is Sinn Féin’s frequent attacks on advisers, high salaries for senior civil servants and crony appointments.

Fianna Fáil linked the high salaries for public officials with the infamous cuts to old age pensions by the Cosgrave administration. The campaigns were as anti-establishment against Cumann na nGaedheal as Sinn Féin today is anti-establishment against Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

So consciously or otherwise, Sinn Féin is following closely the Chief’s old playbook. But what about after the next election? Will the party continue to look to him for inspiration?

Social issues

If it does the party will observe a couple of lessons which will influence its conduct of government. It will have a heavy focus on social issues, such as housing.

Despite the straitened circumstances the new Government embarked on an intensive programme of building. Between 1923 and 1932, as David McCullagh’s biography of Dev points out, there were fewer than 2,000 houses a year built by the State; between 1932 and 1942, the average annual figure was 12,000 a year.

There was also a major programme of building hospitals – 13 county hospitals, 17 district hospitals and eight fever hospitals were completed by 1942.

Welfare payments were introduced or increased; taxes were raised. Public spending surged.

“Predatory taxation,” moaned The Irish Times.

“Abundant loot mercilessly extracted from every section of the community,” the Irish Independent howled.

“The first poor man’s budget,” cheered the Irish Press.

A Dev-influenced Sinn Féin government will also display a rigid devotion to constitutional politics and respect for the institutions of the State. He was careful to cultivate the civil service and reassure the Army and gardaí, whom he praised for serving “the elected representatives of the people” in his first ardfheis speech after winning power.

While he released republican prisoners and suspended emergency powers, he did not repeal them. He would go on to use the latter against the former.

But will Sinn Féin follow de Valera in his patience and realism – hypocrisy, if you like – on the North? As John A Murphy noted, the 26 counties always took precedence over the 32 counties for him.

This may be where the party breaks with the Dev manual. A Sinn Féin-led government will have two great priorities – social and economic reform, and a united Ireland.

Acceptance of a kinetic united Ireland policy will be the price of entry to that government for any coalition partner. Sinn Féin will not be content with the Chief’s windy rhetoric and misty-eyed aspiration.

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